Not long ago I held a contest on a small writing forum I’m a moderator on for writing atmosphere-based short stories. I came up with the idea for it because I had been planning on writing a lot of atmospheric/surreal things myself, and I thought it could be fun, and also a learning experience, to force people to focus on nothing but atmosphere. So I thought I’d make a post about atmosphere in general.
I have an awful lot to say on the subject, but I’ll try my best not to ramble and to keep it coherent.
Atmosphere, when talking about it in terms of art, generally refers to tone. It’s a setting that is supposed to make you feel a certain way. Depending on what sort of tone you wish to set, your atmosphere will shift, and in a lot of stories it can shift within a scene to convey a different sort of tone or feeling in the air based on the characters’ feelings. Atmosphere is very much a focus on emotions through sensory intake; what things look, sound, smell, feel, and taste like will all convey a stronger sense of the atmosphere.
When I was trying to come up with a description for my contest, I found myself having a hard time describing atmosphere without using the example of horror. This is because horror is a genre where atmosphere is what makes or breaks it. I would argue that building atmosphere is the most important aspect of making good, effective horror. It’s meant to tickle the audience’s senses and attempt to make them feel uncomfortable, if not downright terrified. Just throwing things out in the audience’s face and shouting boo isn’t going to be enough. There needs to be build up, and that’s where atmosphere comes in.
Depending on the medium you’re working with, there are a lot of different ways to build atmosphere. With visual media, you have to focus on things such as framing, lighting, colors, shapes, and how much or little information is given. With auditory media, you have to know how to capture feeling within sound, whether it’s in actual sound effects, or in ambient, atmospheric music. When you have a medium that’s a mix of both audio and visual, both sound and sight have to mix together in such a way that they unionize to create the feeling you’re going for.
With something like a video game medium, you also get another aspect for how to work in the atmosphere: how much control you give the player in what they can do with the situation presented to them. This could arguably be focusing on the sense of touch, but I believe it’s something a bit more abstract than that. If you’re playing a horror game and there are monsters chasing you, but you are unable to run, the game is forcing a sense of panic on you, and it’s just adding to the atmosphere.
Working with a text-based medium (writing), it’s challenging you a bit more to build that atmosphere, especially for a world that is so visually-oriented. Words have power, but you have to know just how to weave them together to get the proper feelings you’re going for. This is when a focus on the prose is vitally necessary. Now, depending on what sort of atmosphere you’re going for, you’ll be using different styles and methods to convey your feelings, but most often it comes in the form of specific details. Not just visual details in trying to make you see what everything around the character looks like, but emotional and other sensory details. You shouldn’t necessarily get too detailed; just a quick glimpse of a shadow flickering in the corner of the eye. A twig snapping somewhere behind you. Your hand brushing against something cold and moist. Your chest starts getting tighter and you find it difficult to breathe as the air grows thick with humidity.
Atmosphere is all about total immersion in the world you’ve created. It’s meant to make the audience feel transported out of their snug little world into your story. To hook into the reader’s soul and drag them away, whether they want to go or not. It’s transporting them into another sense of consciousness, where they can no longer escape. Or, perhaps, it’s just to take them on a stroll through a garden to sniff the sweet flowers blooming all around, to let them relax from their crazy lives, if only for a little bit.
Think about what you want your audience to feel, and then do your best to transport them to that world through succinct detail, through manipulation of the senses, through emotional reactions. It will only make your story that much stronger and you will create something truly unforgettable if you’re lucky.